Challenges for the GOP

Tony Fabrizio is one of the smartest Republican pollsters around today. A veteran who has been chief strategist for Bob Dole’s presidential campaign and many statewide campaigns, Fabrizio has just completed a landmark study on the structure and image of the Republican Party. The study was conducted as a follow-up to Fabrizio’s  similar effort on the party 10 years ago, in 1997. 

The findings indicate storm clouds on the horizon for the GOP. In terms of party make-up, Fabrizio segments the GOP into seven subgroups based on issue identification. The groups are separated into those that focus on moral and cultural issues (51 percent), foreign policy issues (28 percent) and economic issues (16 percent). Ten years ago, Fabrizio did not even show a foreign policy axis, an indication of how much Sept. 11 has changed voter attitudes. What is noteworthy is the much higher number of Republican social issue voters as opposed to economic voters, the traditional base of the GOP prior to the 1980s. Republicans are going to have to do a much better job of emphasizing economic themes if they want to be competitive with “pocketbook voters” who feel they haven’t shared in U.S. economic prosperity.

Equally challenging, however, are the splits that appear within each of Fabrizio’s groupings. His “Dennis Miller Republicans” are socially libertarian, whereas “Moralists” have more traditional views on social issues. Likewise, “Bush Hawks” strongly support the president’s policies in Iraq, while “Fortress America” Republicans are more divided. Even in economics, “Free Marketeers” (8 percent) and “Heartland Republicans” do not see eye to eye on the GOP message.

To be sure, there are issues that still unite these disparate groups. Fabrizio’s questions outline messages that still draw strong GOP support, such as balancing the federal budget, shrinking government and emphasizing a “realist” foreign policy. Yet these are older issues and most of the new initiatives introduced by President Bush (Social Security reform, federal involvement in education, healthcare reform) are highly controversial within the GOP. One thing that is NOT controversial is Bush’s comprehensive immigration reform plan, which is overwhelmingly rejected by his own party. When one considers that George W. Bush was the first Republican elected president since the 1920s without also winning the independent vote, relying instead on a massive 94 percent vote from Republicans, it is clear that GOP future electoral prospects lean heavily on a united Republican Party.

Even if united, however, the GOP faces the challenge of growing with the rest of the population. And Fabrizio’s survey points up some concerns. The current demographics of the Republican Party are not in step with the rest of the country. The party is older than 10 years ago (41 percent are over 55 compared to 28 percent a decade ago), more Protestant (54 percent versus 47 percent) and less Catholic (22 percent from 25 percent, despite a major effort with this group by President Bush), and far more conservative (71 percent versus 55 percent). Most ominously, the GOP is almost exclusively white — 93 percent — and only 2 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian in a country that is now slightly less than 70 percent Caucasian.

That’s why the hill gets steeper for the GOP in the years ahead. Republicans will have to adapt their message and reach out to new voter groups in innovative ways or face a prolonged drought similar to the decades of the middle of the last century when it seldom formed governing majorities.